DAILY CATHOLIC    WEDNESDAY     November 10, 1999     vol. 10, no. 213

from a CATHOLIC perspective

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        JERUSALEM, NOV 9 (ZENIT).- Yesterday the Israeli government asked the Vatican to try to understand its decision to give permission to a group of Islamic fundamentalists to construct a mosque on public land in front of the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth.

        Shlomo Ben Ami, Israeli Minister of Interior Security, justified the authorities' decision by saying that Israel "is a very complex mosaic where it is not easy to satisfy everyone."

        All the Christian representatives expressed their disappointment over the Israeli government's decision, as the mosque does not respond to religious needs of the Islamic community, but to the interest of a small group intent on provocation in the very square where the Basilica receives pilgrims. Even the Palestinian National Authority has opposed the idea of the construction of a mosque. Last Easter, the fundamentalists carried out acts of violence against Christians and nearby stores. Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Michel Sabbah said that the decision could provoke the suspension of the Pope's visit to Nazareth during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

        In the meantime, after receiving permission for construction of the mosque, the Islamic movement has dismantled the large tent it setup illegally on the square two years ago.

        With a certain irony, Ben Ami stated that the presence of the Basilica and the mosque next to one another, "is a situation that is rather suggestive" and he assured that he would do everything "possible to guarantee the interests of the Churches and contribute to make conditions easier for the papal visit." He disclosed that a police post would be installed near the Basilica of the Annunciation in order to insure safe access to the faithful to the place of worship.

        As a sign of protest, the Christian leaders of the Holy Land have decided to close all the Churches on November 22 and 23.

        In a related story, according to a report in the Washington Post, the debate over the location of the site of Christ's baptism is developing into a political-economic struggle.

        Mohammed Waheeb, a Jordanian archeologist cites Wadi Kharrar, Jordan, as the site, while Israeli archeologists propose a site on the Israeli side. With millions of pilgrims expected for the Jubilee, this academic debate has become all but academic.

        The Gospel of John indicates that Christ was baptized in "Bethany beyond the Jordan," which would seem to imply that the location was on the East Bank. For this reason, Waheeb, a devout Muslim, began studying the Christian scriptures to locate the site.

        In 1994, Waheeb began digging in a mine field near Wadi Kharrar, and hit Christian ruins. The remains include early monasteries and churches, as well as baptismal pools. This would seem to indicate that some early Christians had identified this place as the site of Christ's baptism. Even more surprising, the archeologist found a still-active network of springs, carrying water from this site into the nearby Jordan river.

        Waheeb argues that this site, with its fresh spring water, is much more likely than sites actually on the Jordan, which is muddy and contains pea-green water. Many archeologists agree that even in the time of Jesus, the river was dirty.

        The Jordanian Ministry of Tourism, led by Aquel Biltaji, has already invested $1 million in the excavations, and has budgeted another $6 million, much of which will come from U.S. assistance. The land mines have been removed, and the Jordanians have begun work on a visitors' center to welcome pilgrims, as well as a conference hall and a "John the Baptist Research Center."

        The Israelis, for their part, reject Jordan's claim, citing several locations on the West Bank as possible sites of Jesus' baptism. One of these is Kasar el Yahud, near Jericho, which had been the site of Orthodox pilgrimages for over a thousand years. Unfortunately, since the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in 1967, the site lies in a militarized zone, and is open to tourists only twice a year. As an alternative, Israel has opened a site at Kibbutz Kinnaret, some seventy miles north of the site.

        Archeologists remain split on the issue, but even some Israelis are coming to side with Waheed. "Unfortunately for Israeli tourism, the Book of John specifically states that Jesus was baptized east of the Jordan," stated Yadin Roman, editor of Eretz magazine. "They have a very plausible claim that during the Byzantine era that site was accepted as the site where Jesus was baptized."

    A Jubilee of Tourism

        Elsewhere in the Holy Land, preparations continue for the influx of tourists and pilgrims, expected to exceed 3 million, including Pope John Paul II. Throughout Israel and Palestine disputes are arising over the sites of miracles and the administration of the holy places.

        For instance, certain factions have objected to Israel's suggestion to build another door in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher to provide a fire escape. Currently, all the doors but one are sealed, with the key entrusted to a Muslim family. The key to the proposed new door would be shared among the various Christian groups using the Basilica.

        Elsewhere, there are arguments about the precise location of Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine, the identity of Mount Sinai, and the proposal of one Israeli businessman to build a submerged platform in the Sea of Galilee so that tourists can "walk on water," like Jesus did. ZE99110809 and ZE99110820

Articles provided through Catholic World News and Church News at Noticias Eclesiales and International Dossiers, Daily Dispatches and Features at ZENIT International News Agency. CWN, NE and ZENIT are not affiliated with the Daily CATHOLIC but provide this service via e-mail to the Daily CATHOLIC Monday through Friday.

November 10, 1999       volume 10, no. 213


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